The Japanese Grand Prix is always a highlight of the Formula 1 season. The drivers love the Suzuka circuit, one of the true drivers’ circuits, while the fans love the atmosphere of the frenzied Japanese locals. For everyone watching on TV in Europe it also provides the challenges of a night race…do I stay up or get up.
This weekend’s race in Japan has added significance because it could play a huge role in the destination of the world championship this year. Fernando Alonso still holds a commanding championship lead but the Ferrari has been off the pace in recent races and it has only been Alonso’s superb driving that has allowed him to maintain his lead.
How much longer can this run of form last? This weekend’s race could be the turning point in the championship with the McLaren and Red Bull cars sure to be faster and while both have had issues in recent weeks it would be very surprising if they do not relegate Alonso to a much smaller role in Sunday’s race.
The Suzuka Circuit
Suzuka features a unique figure of eight layout and is consistently ranked as one of the drivers’ favourite races of the year. With fast flowing corners that link immediately from one turn to the next it is easy to see why the drivers love Suzuka and also why it is such a test of both the driver and car.
Vettel’s thoughts on the circuit are echoed by the entire grid with the 24 year old saying:
“Suzuka is one of my favourite tracks; it really couldn’t have been built any better,” said the championship leader. “The first sector up to the Degner Curve is the most spectacular and challenging of the whole season. The 130R is legendary; it’s great fun to drive straight through this left-hand bend.”
Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen talks us through the lap:
“Suzuka is one of the races everybody looks forward to and I’m no different. It’s a proper track, exactly the sort of circuit you want to drive F1 cars on as it has everything – high speed corners where you can really feel the downforce working, medium speed sections where it’s all about car balance and some of the most passionate fans in the world.
“For me the best bit of the track is in sector one, from T1 to T7. You go into T1 and T2 at high speed and if you’re not fully committed you can lose a lot of time right at the start of the lap. Out of T2 the track is positively cambered and you can really lean on the car as you go into T3. From there, right through to T7 if the car is well balanced the whole section seems to flow. It’s a great feeling when you get it right, but get it wrong and you lose a lot of time.”
Suzuka is a circuit tailor made for Hamilton as he looks to bounce back from his Singapore retirement. The Englishman was in stunning form before his gearbox failure and he will know that anything less than a win this weekend could mean the end of his championship challenge.
He should be able to call on the best car in the field with McLaren almost certain to once again have the fastest car around Suzuka. The team have made steady improvements since the British Grand Prix and have a dominant car, particularly in high speed corners such as those seen at Suzuka.
“When I first raced here in 2009, I couldn’t believe a place like this could still exist in Formula One,” said Hamilton. “It still feels like a proper old-school circuit. It doesn’t have the polish or finesse of an ultra-modern track, but is all the better for it. It’s fantastically quick, too, and very difficult to master. It’s an unforgiving place, and it also has that special atmosphere that you only get in Japan, for some reason.
“I think that’s due to the fans – they’re what make any visit to a racetrack in Japan feel so special. They’re very passionate about Formula One, but also extremely polite and friendly. They make you feel very special every day when you’re going in and out of the circuit.
Suzuka is a circuit that places a tremendous strain on the tyres with huge loads being pressed through the tyres for almost the entire lap. With the opening section of the circuit seeing drivers flow from turn one all the way to the Spoon Curve that leads drivers onto the back straight there is no opportunity for the drivers, or the tyres, to breathe and as a result Suzuka is consistently one of the circuits on the calendar with the highest tyre wear rates.
Focus on Hamilton this weekend
With confirmation of his move to Mercedes Lewis Hamilton will be looking to sign off from McLaren with a second world title. The Englishman has driven beautifully for most of the year but has found himself involved in numerous accidents and his recent retirement in Singapore places him at a severe disadvantage to Alonso.
The Spaniard has been a picture of consistency throughout the year whereas Hamilton has consistently been the fastest driver on the grid but been involved in other people’s accidents or suffered mechanical failures. With six races remaining the time is nigh for Lewis to win races consistently and start edging his way towards Alonso in the championship standings.
Suzuka is the perfect place for Hamilton to visit following his Singapore disappointment. It is a track that plays to both his and McLaren’s strengths-high speed corners. Suzuka is filled with them and the balance of the McLaren has consistently allowed Hamilton, and Jenson Button, to rave about the grip from their very first test of the car.
McLaren has won four of the last five races and with Hamilton having been commanding the race in Singapore it is clear that the silver cars are the class of the field. It is now imperative that Hamilton can take advantage of this fact for the rest of the campaign.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s race Hamilton’s mindset was clear. “In terms of the championship, there’s nothing to really be gained by analysing the points tables. From now on, it’s simply gloves off. As in Singapore, I’ll come out fighting – I’ll just be hoping for a better result.”
Alonso needs to find performance
Alonso has been magnificent this season in finding a way to consistently get the maximum from the car and finish races on the podium. He will need to continue doing this for the rest of the year because it seems unlikely that the Ferrari will have the speed to challenge for wins.
The team has lost its way in the development race throughout the summer and with McLaren firing on all cylinders and Red Bull poised to pounce on any mistakes by Woking outfit it leaves Ferrari struggling to offer anything other than token resistance.
In Singapore the plight of Alonso was clear. He lacked downforce and as a result was off the pace. A third place finish was a positive result given the circumstances but an improvement is now needed if they are to win the title.
Alonso will always get the most from the car but with so many medium speed circuits upcoming where downforce is crucial it is likely that the Prancing Horse will struggle to match the galloping McLaren’s and Red Bull’s.
“It’s a little bit difficult to predict,” said Alonso. “I think all this year we’ve been up and down for all the teams and it’s the same for us. For sure, we need to improve the performance we saw in Singapore. We struggled all weekend. Positions five and 13 for our cars is not what we were hoping for so we need to be in a better position in Suzuka. Maybe Silverstone is also quite similar to Suzuka and we were quite okay there so hopefully we can repeat that kind of performance.”
In Singapore the team brought new aerodynamic parts that failed to offer a performance advantage. This is fairly typical for teams in this era of no testing so it will be worth watching to see if Ferrari has since found a way to unlock the potential of the new parts. If they have there is life in Alonso’s title challenge. If however they haven’t, the Spaniard will once again be relying on his wits rather than his weaponry.
Lotus looking to turn the corner
Lotus will finally bring their “double DRS” to Suzuka. The team have been trialling it since the German Grand Prix in July but now feel that it is ready for use in a Grand Prix. For Kimi Raikkonen it comes not a moment too soon.
The Finn has lost his momentum in the last three races and is 45 points adrift of Alonso. He needs a performance lift this weekend and Lotus is confident that they will have found it.
The team disappointed for most of the year with their inability to win a race but their recent struggles have led to questions about whether they actually still have the pace to win. The double DRS should give them a major performance advantage and bring them back to the battle at the sharp end.
The team has benefitted from Raikkonen’s consistency-11 consecutive points finishes-but after disappointing races in Monza and Singapore it is imperative that they find their form once again this weekend otherwise the championship might be out of touch for the returning Finn. The performance advantage of the Double DRS has been speculated as anything up to 0.5s but it is more likely that it will be in the region of half that. Even so it could be enough to put Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in position to challenge for the win.
Red Bull back to winning ways
It has been a strange year for the reigning champions. Red Bull has lost its mantle as the fastest car in the field yet is romping its way towards a third consecutive Constructors’ Championship. The advantage that they had enjoyed in recent years always centred on medium to high speed corners yet the current car is lacking in this regards towards McLaren.
They have however been consistent and both drivers have been able to take home points from races and allow the team to build a 36 point championship lead over McLaren.
For Sebastian Vettel however the season has not been going to plan. Having won the last two Drivers’ Championships the German had expected to claim a third title. Winning just two races however has fallen below expectations and even though he is second in the championship it is clear that much needs to improve in Milton Keynes.
“There’s a lot of races left and it’s a bit difficult to predict what’s going to happen,” commented Vettel. “We have to make sure that we finish the races first of all. I think the pace is there, even if we are not quick enough to win then it is good enough to collect a lot of points.”
This weekend’s race will be key for Red Bull and one of the most crucial aspects for Vettel’s title charge is having Mark Webber back on form and in a position to take points off his teammate’s title rivals.
Caterham need a big weekend
The team has not performed to expectation this season and now need a top 12 finish in the remaining six races to overhaul Marussia in the standings. The team had expected to challenge for the occasional points finish this year but with the rest of the grid-Williams and Toro Rosso-having advanced during the off-season it has proved difficult for Caterham to get into position to challenge for anything other than “best of the rest.”
Mark Smith, the team’s technical director, commented on this in Singapore:
“As with every other team we do statistical analysis of our performance compared to our competitors and if you take the three teams ahead of us-Toro Rosso, Williams and Force India-we are developing, broadly speaking at the same rate as them from the beginning of the season to now. Given the resources that we have I don’t think that’s too bad but obviously just matching them we’ll never catch people.”
For Caterham it is crucial that they can match their 2010 performance in Japan when Heikki Kovalainen finished 12th otherwise the team could find itself under the financial strain in 2013.
“Suzuka is one of the most fascinating and challenging tracks of the season. It’s got a first sector with very technical high-speed corners, and then you encounter the middle sector with the hairpin and the tricky Degner corners, which are relevant for stability. Spoon corner is also quite special. It’s a medium to high-speed corner, leading onto a long straight with the R130 corner, which is flat nowadays but still challenging. Finally there is the slow chicane at the end of the lap where you need good traction. Overall it is a very complex and technical track. It requires a well-balanced car and it is very challenging for the drivers. The tyres will be the hard and the soft compounds, which should be fine for this track. Due to the abrasive surface and the fast corners in the first sector, which put a high load on the tyres, there should be no issues with warming them up.”
The track does not have a bumpy track surface and this combined with smooth kerbs mean that drivers can set their car up with a very low ride height. One challenge however is that the track grip evolves quickly throughout the weekend and can mean that what works in one session might not work in the next.
Formula 1 revolves on Pirelli tyres
“Suzuka is definitely one of the highlights of the Formula One calendar for us: not only from a technical point of view but also because of the unique atmosphere. The fans are some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic in the world, and we are always assured of an extremely warm welcome. But it’s the layout of the track that delivers the technical challenge: Suzuka is a classic drivers’ circuit, a bit like Spa or Monza, with some of the most awesome corners that we see all year and very little margin for error. While it might at first seem from the names of the compounds that we are bringing harder tyres to Japan this year, in fact they are softer.
“Despite the increased demands that this places on the compound and structure, they are still more than capable of withstanding the immense forces to which they are subjected lap after lap. With a full step between the compounds as well, we hope this will bring extra performance and excitement to what is already a classic race. This should also open up the opportunity for lots of different strategies, which as we have seen already this year can form the foundation of a memorable victory, or boost drivers to a top result even if they have started from lower down on the grid. Last year the drivers’ championship was actually decided in Japan, but this year has been so competitive that we are still a long way from seeing the titles settled – and that is great news for all the fans.”
Weather for this weekend
Suzuka has had some monumental downpours affect the racing, such as in 1994, but it seems that there is little chance of rain this weekend with a cloudy Saturday set to be the only time that the sun isn’t scorching the track.